Photo Credit: Asher Schwartz
  • How did Yehuda thwart Yosef’s plan to realize his second dream?
  • How does the conflict between Yehuda and Yosef echo through history and play out in the State of Israel today?
  • What is the hidden value of the Diasporic Jewish identity expressed by Yaakov (as opposed to Israel)?



Parshat Vayigash begins with Yehuda stepping up for Binyamin, confronting the viceroy and demonstrating to Yosef that his older brothers had indeed experienced the necessary correction for selling him into slavery so many years earlier.

In B’reishit 44, verse 27, Yehuda quotes his father Yaakov as saying “my wife bore me two sons.”

Although it likely took incredible strength and humility for Yehuda – a son of Leah – to say these words, he appears here to have adopted his father’s position that Raḥel was in fact Yaakov’s “true wife.”

In our episodes on Parshiot Vayetzei and Vayishlaḥ, we explored how Raḥel was Yaakov’s ideal partner for who he was when they had met but that Leah was Israel’s true wife for eternity.

It had taken some time for Yaakov to navigate the challenges of having two and then eventually four wives, and this clearly affected his family’s dynamics. The sons of Leah – especially her elder sons – were sensitive to their mother’s status, and to their own, within the clan. This had obviously been one of the factors that contributed to their earlier hostility towards Yosef.

When Yosef heard Yehuda – who still had no idea that he was addressing his long lost brother – speak of Raḥel as Yaakov’s true wife, his entire perception of the situation likely began to change. Until this point, Yosef likely thought that Leah’s sons had wanted to displace the sons of Raḥel. But hearing Yehuda acknowledge Raḥel’s status as Yaakov’s primary wife made clear that even if that had at one time been true, it no longer was.

In addition to making it clear that his tshuva was complete for what he and his brothers had done to Yosef, Yehuda’s statements also provided new information pertaining to the story of what had occurred all those years back that would change the way Yosef understood those events.

In verse 28, we see Yehuda quoting Yaakov as saying that Yosef was “torn by a beast.” This was the first news Yosef had received about his father’s understanding of what had happened to him. Until here, he might have believed that Yaakov had betrayed him. It wouldn’t make sense for any member of the family to commit such an act against a son of Israel, especially a favored son, without approval from the clan head. And hadn’t his father been the one to send Yosef from Hebron to Shkhem in the first place?

Before hearing Yehuda’s address, Yosef might have had some painful suspicions that prevented him from contacting his father. But now he not only realized that his father hadn’t betrayed him but also how important he actually was to Yaakov.

By verbally acknowledging the primary importance of Raḥel and her sons to Yaakov, Yehuda showed Yosef that he had been misunderstanding the entire situation and could no longer contextualize it as a conflict between the sons of Raḥel and Leah. That paradigm shift is likely what forced Yosef to abruptly change course.

Yehuda’s powerfully humble words not only succeeded in freeing Binyamin but also broke Yosef’s ability to continue further with his plan. When B’reishit 45, verse 1, tells us that “Yosef could no longer control himself,” the implication is that he did in fact want to control himself, but couldn’t, which means that he had not intended to reveal himself to his brothers this early. By causing him to lose control, Yehuda had prevented Yosef from implementing his entire plan and prompted him to instead order everyone else out of the room so he could reveal his true identity to his brothers.

But if Yosef couldn’t control himself and revealed his true identity to his brothers earlier than he had intended, we are still left with the question of what aspect of his plan he didn’t get to implement.

The brothers had admitted what they had done to Yosef. They expressed remorse and had experienced genuine emotional anguish over it. When it came time to either abandon or fight for Binyamin – the younger Yosef – they stepped up and treated him as a true brother. Yehuda, who had by now clearly emerged as leader of the brothers, even acknowledged the primary importance of Raḥel’s sons to the family. It seems that their tshuva process was complete.

But there must have been something else. From Yosef’s perspective, his brothers had committed not one, but two transgressions in need of being corrected. Although they had already atoned for the sale of Yosef, from Yosef’s point of view that was actually their second transgression that derived from a more foundational sin – namely their refusal to recognize his status. For his brothers to accept him as the son of Israel that would determine their national destiny, Yosef would have needed to continue the ruse a bit longer.

Yosef’s first dream – where eleven sheaves bowed low to his sheave – was realized when his brothers returned to Egypt with Binyamin. That also achieved correction for the the actual crime the brothers had committed against Yosef. But correcting the deeper problem, their unwillingness to accept Yosef’s leadership role in fulfilling the clan’s mission, would require the fulfillment of his second dream, where the sun and the moon and eleven stars bowed to him.

What Yosef might have been planning was to detain Binyamin on allegations of stealing his silver goblet and to then condition his release on their father Yaakov coming personally to Egypt with his wives and children. Had Yosef made this demand, Yehuda would have had to return home for their father and bring the entire family to stand before Yosef, thus realizing the second dream.

That would have been the ideal moment for Yosef to reveal himself to his family because doing so would have had such a powerful effect that no one in the family would be able to deny the Divine hand and deep purpose guiding the events that had brought them all to that moment. This could have led to everyone recognizing Yosef’s dominance not only in the material realm but also in regards to spiritual matters.

But because Yosef didn’t realize his entire plan, his brothers were able to reconcile with Yosef and recognize his supremacy on a practical material level, but not when it came to ideological values.

This would have repercussions later in Israel’s history and will result in tensions between the northern kingdom of Israel, often ruled by a descendent of Yosef’s sub tribe Ephraim, and the southern Davidic kingdom of Yehuda.

It’s generally difficult for the forces of Yosef and Yehuda to acknowledge one another’s spiritual importance. We can see this tension very clearly in Israeli society today, where the Torah world – specifically the Ḥaredi Torah world – and Israeli patriots disconnected from our Torah each have trouble acknowledging that the Other possesses important values that their own camp lacks.

The Yosef camp – the Zionists who established the State of Israel for the material benefit of the Jewish people, and with hopes that having our own nation-state would not only keep us safe from our persecutors but would also make us a “normal” nation among the nations – often have trouble seeing real value or importance in Israel’s ancient culture and traditions.

The Ḥaredi world, meanwhile, has trouble seeing value in renewed Jewish statehood. Even the nationalist Torah world, that does regard the State of Israel as something positive and historically significant, still sees it as lacking the inner content necessary to advance. There’s acknowledgement that Zionism saved the Jewish people physically and liberated us materially but not that it also contributed to our spiritual advancement.

It’s important to appreciate that the Zionist movement emerged in the wake of the haskala – the “Jewish enlightenment” that led many Jews in western Europe to completely abandon the national component of our identity and to attempt to become Germans of the Mosaic persuasion or Frenchmen with a Jewish religion. Having had bought into the spirit of European nationalism, many Jews came to regard their true brothers and sisters as the gentiles they lived amongst and to see Jews in other lands as strangers who happened to by coincidence share their religion.

There’s even a famous story about World War I, where during a ceasefire, Jews in British uniforms and Jews in German uniforms got together to organize a minyan. But after the ceasefire was over, they were able to return to killing each other.

The haskala, which should certainly be understood as a major layer of Jewish colonization in exile, had caused Jews to see nothing wrong with killing Jews in an opposing army because our centuries of traumatic persecution prior to finally being granted some level of inclusion had caused it to become a central Jewish value to show how patriotic and loyal we could be to our host nation.

And while the haskala certainly created many of the conditions that led to the rise of the Zionist movement, Zionism – the movement of Mashiaḥ ben Yosef – also challenged a very central tenet of haskala thinking by reminding us that Jews are actually one people scattered throughout the world that share an eternal bond, common homeland and collective destiny. The Zionist movement, for all its flaws, restored to us the concepts of Aḥdut Haam – national unity – and Ahavat Yisrael – the unconditional love for the Hebrew collective that must trickle down to every Jew. These had been deep values in our Torah and ancient culture that had been obscured by centuries of exile and the alluring temptations of Jewish emancipation in the newly enlightened European nation-states. Even the Torah world had forgotten these values to a certain extent.

Zionism – the movement of Yosef that focused on the material rebuilding of the nation of Israel – was first and foremost meant to be a movement for reuniting brothers and reminding us of our mutual responsibility for one another. Like Yosef who had sought out his brothers in Shkhem, Binyamin Z’ev Herzl closed his first World Zionist Congress in Basle with a highly emotional statement that “brothers have found each other again.”

Although the Torah world has certainly been influenced by the Zionist challenge to the haskala mentality, most notably in our return to centering concepts of Aḥdut Haam and Ahavat Yisrael in our thinking, we are not always aware that it was the Zionist movement that had rescued these ideas and restored their centrality.

But for our redemption process to advance, this lack of recognition needs to find its correction, such that the forces of Yehuda and Yosef in Israeli society will be able to recognize and appreciate not only each other’s material contributions but also spiritual contributions to the nation. Yosef, in his day, did not manage to achieve this and the task remains for us to accomplish in our generation.

In any case, because Yosef was unable to complete his brothers’ correction, he opted to transport the entire family down to Egypt, in hopes of enlisting them in his efforts to transform Egypt into a model society that would serve as a light unto nations. As Egypt’s viceroy, he could have very easily supplied Yaakov’s family with food in their own land. So the fact that he insisted on relocating them down to Egypt should be seen as driven less by economic concerns and more by how he had planned for the Hebrews to influence human civilization.

When Yosef’s brothers returned to their land and very carefully informed their father that his son was still alive, we see that Yaakov – who had been in morning over Yosef for decades – now experienced a spiritual revival. B’reishit 45, verse 28 shows that once his spirit retuned, he became Israel once more. His full-fledged national character was reborn and he couldn’t contain his excitement to see Yosef once again.

On their way down to Egypt with everything they owned, the Israeli clan first stopped in B’er-Sheva, where B’reishit 46, verse 1, tells us Yaakov offered sacrifices to the “G-D of his father Yitzḥak” – the aspect of Divinity that prohibits Jews from leaving the Land of Israel.

Because Yitzḥak was commanded never to leave the land of the Hebrews, Yaakov was essentially seeking the Creator’s permission to travel down to Egypt.

Verse 2 then shows the Creator responding to Israel at night, which is itself already a time associated with exile, and calling Israel “Yaakov Yaakov.” As already discussed in our episode on Parshat Ḥayei Sarah, a double name in the Torah tends to indicate the unification of a person’s nefesh and neshama – a sign that they’ve become one with their potential in life. This indicates that Yaakov, not necessarily Israel but Yaakov, had achieved his full greatness.

But the verse specifically states that the Creator called Israel “Yaakov Yaakov.” Decades earlier, as Yaakov had returned to his land from Aram, the Creator had changed his name to Yisrael. And now, as Yaakov’s family was leaving their land again to descend into Egypt, the clan was losing its national character and returning to being just a family.

It’s important to understand that “Israel” is the identity of the Jewish people in our own land, our state of gadlut – greatness – maximally realized.

Yaakov, on the other hand, is a deficient form of Jewish identity and self-realization that prevails when the Children of Israel are in exile, in our state of katnut – smallness. And while on the surface, this transformation from gadlut to katnut might seem entirely negative, it’s actually part of our built-in national survival system.

The ability for Israel to return to the katnut state from time to time is part of what allows the Jewish people to remain eternal. The state of gadlut hasn’t always been possible to maintain and there have been periods when it was necessary to return to the condition of Yaakov in order to hibernate and wait out difficult times. Yaakov represents the period of Israel’s “hibernation” so to speak, but also the guarantee of our eternality.

Yaakov’s name change to Israel was different in this regard from Avraham’s name change from Avram. The name Avram was completely abolished and replaced by the name Avraham. But when the Creator renamed Yaakov Yisrael, the new name was really only an addition to the old name.

These two names, Yaakov and Yisrael, actually give the Hebrew nation two legitimate modes of existence.

In some historic periods, we exist as an independent nation in our own land, as did the patriarch Israel. But in other periods, we’ve existed more in the manner of Yaakov – a family and/or even a religious community simply focused on surviving in exile.

But even when in exile, the Jews retain the memory of our existence as an independent nation, and the knowledge that we must eventually return to our previous state of gadlut. Therefore, even in foreign lands, we’ve often remained an independent people, even when only seen from the outside as an ethnic group or religious community.

In any case, the Creator told Yaakov not to fear going down to Egypt and gave an assurance that his clan would become a great nation there and ultimately be brought back home.

The two great civilizations of that era were Egypt and Babylon. The Land of Israel was situated between them and the nation of Israel would ultimately be born from them. Even though the Hebrews were originally from the Land of Israel, Avraham had actually come of age in Babylon.

He and Sarah returned home to what had then been known as Eretz Canaan but they made it a point to find wives for their heirs, Yitzḥak and then Yaakov from the Naḥor branch of their family that had remained in Aram. So we can say that the seed for the nation of Israel came from Babylon. But the womb where that seed would transform from a clan into a nation comprising twelve distinct tribes would be Egypt. And Israel’s later Exodus from Egypt would constitute the official national birth we still commemorate until this day.

The Torah takes care to specify the name of each member of Yaakov’s clan that descended to Egypt. Combined with Yosef’s family, the total count is seventy. In Hebrew culture, the number seventy represents the original seventy primordial nations as enumerated at the end of Parshat Noaḥ. As the “seventy first nation,” Israel is considered a microcosm of these national identities combined into one.

Because Israel’s mission involves spreading Divine light to all the peoples of the world, we must contain within ourselves the seeds of the souls of all these nations. The arrival of Yaakov’s family in Egypt, which would make possible the future birth of the Hebrew nation, carried universal importance for the correction of all humankind.

In order for that universal potential to be realized, however, the essence of each of these seventy primordial nations as contained within Israel had to undergo a ripening process in Egypt.

Yaakov sent Yehuda ahead of him to meet with Yosef and organize matters for the family. B’reishit 46, verse 28, states that “he sent Yehuda ahead of him to Yosef to point the way to Goshen.” There’s a Midrash that understands the Hebrew word in the verse, l’horot – that I’m translating as “to point the way” – to refer to teaching, and explains this to mean that Yehuda established yeshivot in Goshen in preparation for Israel’s arrival. The point being that there would be centers of Torah learning in Egypt in order to enable the survival of Yaakov’s family.

This Midrash might not literally mean yeshivot but the point is that for the period of the exile, Yaakov placed Yehuda in charge of the family – even above Yosef – when it came to maintaining our culture and identity on foreign soil.

In addition, the verse stresses that Yaakov sent Yehuda to Yosef specifically because there were teachings that Yosef needed to learn from Yehuda.

The forces of Yehuda and Yosef enjoy a complicated dialectical relationship throughout history. They influence one another. By standing up for Binyamin and acknowledging Raḥel’s status as Yaakov’s primary wife, Yehuda taught Yosef a great lesson in humility. And by leading his brothers through a process of complete tshuva, Yosef had made a major impression on Yehuda. Their mutual influence, especially when they are able to recognize the value in the Other, can bring each force closer to its messianic potential.

B’reishit 46, verse 29, tells us that Yosef ordered his chariot to go meet his father Israel in Goshen. The concept of a chariot is connected in our mystical tradition with the idea of being a vehicle for the Divine Ideal in this world. It can relate to a person on whom the Sh’khina, the Divine presence, manifests. Until here, the Patriarchs were the chariots, but now the chariot is Yosef.

In addition to having a very emotional reunion with his son, Yaakov saw that the sh’khina rested on Yosef and acknowledged his plan for Egypt as part of a Divine process. That Yaakov agreed to go along with Yosef’s agenda should to a certain extent be seen as Yosef’s second dream being at least partially fulfilled.

Yaakov and some of his sons were then given an audience with Pharaoh. We can see from B’reishit 45, verse 16 that when the news of Yosef’s family had initially reached Pharaoh’s palace, the monarch and his court were very pleased.

Yosef’s former status as a slave and prisoner were likely well known in Egypt but the story of him having actually been born free and kidnapped might have been suspected by some as being state propaganda. But now that the Egyptian people could see Yosef’s father and brothers, the viceroy’s freeborn status could be confirmed, which would then in turn strengthen the legitimacy of Pharaoh’s policies.

Pharaoh likely also believed that the arrival of Yosef’s family would be beneficial to his country. If Yosef was capable of saving Egypt from starvation and collapse, an entire family of Hebrews would likely be able to accomplish so much more for the kingdom. Pharaoh was likely unaware that Yosef was the Hebrew best equipped to successfully manage the material realm.

Yosef prepped his family in advance of their meeting with Pharaoh, with the agenda of making sure the clan would be settled in Goshen.

Although it was important for Yosef to bring his family to Egypt, it was also important for him to settle them separately from the Egyptian population. For the force of Yosef, physical separation between Jews and gentiles is important because mixed marriages are a major threat to the Hebrew identities of Yosef-type Jews. Because Yosef generally lacks the depth of Yehuda’s spiritual roots and tends to be influenced on matters of ideology and values more than he influences, separation from gentile society is the surest way for Yosef to preserve his identity.

One interesting distinction we should note between Yosef’s coaching before the meeting and the way in which the brothers presented themselves to Pharaoh is that the brothers told Pharaoh in B’reishit 47, verse 4, that they had come “lagur b’aretz” – “to sojourn in the land.” But when Yosef was preparing his brothers for the meeting, he had expressed in chapter 46, verse 34, a desire for them to “teishvu b’eretz Goshen” – to “settle in the land of Goshen.” Yosef seems to have wanted his family to stay permanently in Egypt because he believed the Hebrew mission to be best achievable through Egypt’s great power.

But although the brothers had subordinated themselves to Yosef for the time being, they saw nothing permanent about their presence in Egypt – certainly nothing of spiritual value to the Hebrew mission. From their perspective, they were only living in exile temporarily, due to extreme circumstances beyond their control. But they emphasized it to be temporary. This likely remained a point of sharp disagreement between Yosef and his brothers.

Yosef was exceptionally successful in the material realm, which he displayed through his uncanny ability to manage and solve a very threatening crisis. But he mistakenly saw his appointment to high office and work on behalf of Egypt as having central importance to the Hebrew mission. Pharaoh saw Yosef as saving the Egyptian kingdom from starvation while Yosef likely saw himself as fulfilling something larger and more historically meaningful. As we discussed in our episode on Parshat Vayeishev, it’s likely that from his youth, Yosef saw it as his destiny to lead the Israeli family to Egypt and influence the world through the vehicle of this powerful kingdom, similar to how Avraham had initially understood his marriage to the Egyptian princess Hagar.

But Yosef’s plan, driven by a messianic desire to feed the world and ultimately elevate all peoples and cultures to a higher awareness of human purpose, also required the preservation of Hebrew identity. In order to protect that identity from melting and disappearing into Egypt, Yosef created an isolated ghetto community for his family in Goshen so the Children of Israel could become priests of HaShem and conductors of the Divine light within the kingdom of Egypt, which would then in turn serve as a powerful source of illumination for the rest of humanity. Yosef’s plan was somewhat of a hybrid model combining Israel’s particularist approach with the more cosmopolitan approach of Naḥor.

Yosef appears to have used the famine as a pretext to move the Israeli clan to Egypt, so that the family would adopt his hybrid approach to achieving the Hebrew mission. But his plan ultimately failed because the Children of Israel weren’t able to influence the values or ideology of Egyptian civilization. We are not meant to influence the world through another nation but only through our own strong national framework. That was the prophetic message that Avraham received and ultimately fully embraced.

But although mistaken about how we should pursue the realization of the historic Hebrew mission, Yosef’s efforts did contribute to Israel’s advancement. Our national birth had to be from Egypt and it was Yosef’s erroneous plan that succeeded in bringing us there.

Unlike most Jews in his position throughout history, Yosef ultimately will come to understand the shortcomings of his plan. His tshuva would come in the realization that all of the talent and creativity that he had used to improve and strengthen Egypt should have been directed towards building the nation of Israel in our land. This tshuva, which would later be expressed by Yosef’s desire for his bones to be returned to his native land, gives birth to the Mashiaḥ ben Yosef, which would eventually succeed in the form of the Zionist movement.

[Published in Vision Magazine]


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Rav Yehuda HaKohen is an organizer and educator living in northern Judea. As a leader in the Vision movement, he works to empower students and young professionals to become active participants in the current chapter of Jewish history.